Chicago rapper Common [left] dribbles around Chance the Rapper in the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game | Photos by Carolina Sanchez [The TRiiBE]

“I would of dropped 50 in the celebrity game but we a neverrrrrr knowwwww,” Chicago rapper Lil Durk posted this on Twitter, along with a yawning emoji, right before Friday night’s NBA All-Star Celebrity Game tipoff. His words didn’t hit until after the Celebrity Game, where most of the celebrities representing Chicago didn’t score a single bucket. It made many of us wonder: where the hoopers at?

Rapper Common beautifully summed up the natural synergy between most Black youth in the hoods of Chicago and the game of basketball with a spoken-word performance at the start of Sunday night’s NBA All-Star Game. Aptly titled, “If This City Could Talk,” Common painted a vivid picture of a young Black boy growing up in a gritty city with dreams of soaring as high as the stars. The weight of the city’s racial and systemic inequities seem unbearable until the kid picks up a basketball for the first time. 

At that moment, flight feels possible. And with the ancestral powers of Chicago founder Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton, former Mayor Harold Washington, Simeon legend Ben Wilson and NBA stars Mark Aguirre and Michael Jordan coursing through his veins, the recipe for success is already within him. 

“A place of deep souls. Some ball in street clothes,” Common said in front of an electrifying video montage of Black Chicago history. “Nice with the shot, but in the paint we Deebo.”

Basketball is in Common’s DNA. The 47-year-old South Side native grew up with a father who played in the American Basketball Association. Though he pursued rap as a teenager, Common’s hoop dreams and skills never left him — which he undoubtedly proved when he ended Friday night’s Celebrity Game with 10 points, five rebounds, three assists, four steals and the Most Valuable Player trophy.

“Man, I just feel good being home in Chicago,” Common said during his MVP speech. “I wore Ben Wilson’s number because I wanted to represent our city.”

In Chicago, basketball and hip hop often go hand in hand. Many Chicago rappers initially fell in love with basketball before tapping into their lyrical talents. In an interview for The TRiiBE’s series The Block Beat, G Herbo described his youth basketball program at Rebecca K. Crown Youth Center in South Shore as his escape from the streets. When cuts to the After School Matters budget shut down his program, he was left to fend for himself on the streets. 

“I won my first MVP trophy there playing basketball. I’ll never forget,” G Herbo said in the interview. “I was probably ten or 11 years old. That was the best feeling in the world.”

West Side rap collective Pivot Gang also grew up with a “ball is life” mentality. The court served as a therapeutic place of refuge in their native Austin, one of Chicago’s most neglected and violent neighborhoods. 

“Everybody was just trying to work to get to go to the NBA,” Pivot Gang member Saba told Leor Galil in a 2016 Chicago Reader interview. “That was it — we either gonna rap, or we going to the NBA. So pick one.”

That’s why Lil Durk’s words hit so deeply. He’s another Chicago rapper who regularly battles on the court when he’s not in the studio making music.

Chicago rapper Lil Durk on Twitter

Don’t get me wrong. It was great to see Chicago comedians Hannibal Buress and Lil Rel, and artists Chance the Rapper and Taylor Bennett, represent for the city in a fun-filled Celebrity Game. But, I wonder, how much more impactful would the Celebrity Game have been if Chicago rappers like G Herbo, Lil Durk and Saba had’ve been included in the game? 

What would it mean for young Black youth in Chicago to see more of their favorite rappers take their hoop dreams to NBA All-Star Weekend? 

How would having them play in the Celebrity Game help deepen the narrative of Chicago’s connection to basketball? 

These are questions to think about as we continue to share Chicago’s story on future world stages.